Richard Burton has become a bit of an obsession with me of late.
As everyone is aware, Port Talbot boy becomes huge star and marries Elizabeth Taylor. Twice. But there’s far, far more to the guy, who would have turned 86 last week.
My renewed interest in him kicked off at a party in Marbella in July.
I was at the bar hoping they had beer as the champagne was stripping the enamel off my teeth, and started chatting to an elderly South African who asked me which part of England I was from.
Now, as we all know, this exchange usually goes like this: “I’m from Wales, actually.” Blank look. “Um, you know, Tom Jones, Richard Burton.”
He brightens up: “I knew Richard Burton.”
Of course you did, I thought. I humoured him.
“He taught me a song about a Clean Heart or something”.
So here I am in a very fancy Marbella party, all Bentleys and Botox and I’m singing the open verses to Calon Lan to a random South African, when he joins in.
More than 25 years after his death, this goliath of Welshness, of acting and carousing had inspired a random rendition of one of Wales’ most famous hymns in the most unlikely of places.
It turned out that the elderly South African was a former mercenary who had worked on a film with Burton called Wild Geese in the late 1970s.
I knew the film, my favourite of Burton’s in fact as it also starred another hero Roger Moore.
Suffering in the heat and on the wagon, he loved nothing better than mixing in with everybody.
So in a shack renamed the Red Ox in 100 degree African heat, Burton taught this South African mercenary the most versatile Welsh hymn ever.
This is the crux of the man, greater men than I have written about Burton’s acting talent, his epic Shakespearean roles and the fact that he was nominated for (but never won) seven Oscars.
But Burton never forgot his Welshness, forced to become a Swiss exile in 1957 (due to eye-watering taxes, he’d have £6,000 left from an income of £82,000) he named his house Le Paye De Galles.
But despite his massive success, he was at one point the highest earning actor in Hollywood, the Welshness ran through him like a seam of coal.
What has to be appreciated about Richard Burton during his time with Elizabeth Taylor was that they were the most famous couple in the world – even the Pope was forced to comment when their affair started.
Forget the Beckhams or Brad and Angelina, when the Burtons were in town, whatever town that was went wild and his spending sprees were legendary.
He outbid Cartier and Aristotle Onassis for a diamond ring for Taylor, paying the equivalent of £13,000,000 in today’s money; bought Van Gogh and Monets and flew between four homes in his private jet.
He had a 130ft motor yacht so he could have his five beloved dogs with him.
His fame was unprecedented. No other British actor, before or since generated the same manic press coverage.
Yet one of my favourite stories is that of him at a Hollywood party with Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra and Humphrey Bogart – he was preoccupied and distant, and someone asked him if he was OK: “Wales are playing England, I should be at the Arms Park.”
While public schoolboys had their eyes blackened at Oxford when they thought he was easy pickings, he loved the aristocracy and studied them well – every party or weekend he was invited to was an investigative outing.
On more than one occasion he got spectacularly drunk with the Duke of Windsor, he dined with the Rainers of Monaco and was a regular weekend guest at the Rothschild chateau.
Burton found out early on that the true aristocracy are very similar to the working classes – a love of racing, drinking and gambling.
Richard however always looked after his own, cheques were sent back to Pontrhydyfen on a regular basis, new houses were bought, schooling paid for, cars and holidays.
It is often a cliché when they say “He never forgot his roots”, but with Burton it was very real.
Last Thursday, November 10, he would’ve been 86.
As a birthday tribute I ask you to watch Richard Burton’s interviews with American chat show host Dick Cavett on YouTube.
He was a man at the top of his game, one of the top earners in the world, reciting stories in Welsh to an American public – stories about the Miner’s Arms, his love of rugby and his Welshness.
Rich Bach, as he called himself, came from Wales and he wanted everyone to know it.
No greater ambassador has ever lived.
Arwel Richards, from Llanelli, recently relocated to Marbella where he works as a broker.